Thursday, March 19, 2015

Doing the Mashed Potato

I hardly noticed when he came into the classroom, engrossed as I was in the writing exercise I was modeling with 4th grade students for 4th grade teachers in a language arts class. However, as I made my rounds of the students working in their small groups, I saw the latecomer again. He still fumbled through his backpack, unable to pull a pencil out of the overflow of crumpled papers, notebooks, and library books. His teacher patted his shoulder and asked, “You awake yet, J.C.?” The boy blinked a few times, as if trying to shake off sleep’s stupor. He wiped his mouth, failing to completely erase the remains of the white milk mustache from the cafeteria cereal.

He looked up at the teacher, smiled until deep dimples broke out on his sizeable cheeks, and shrugged. “Come on, son, let’s get moving,” the teacher encouraged gently. 

Later on a break, I asked the teacher about this nine year old. She explained he lived with an odd assortment of relatives, though none were his parents. He was left to his own devices for putting himself to bed and waking himself up. Multiple calls home as well as visits produced little improvement.  “He used to live with a grandmother, but she passed away during the summer. He’s with relatives in this house, but is pretty much on his own. Cooking, laundry…he does it himself, when it gets done,” she explained. “It’s frustrating. We’ve called the authorities, but he doesn’t meet their criteria for abuse or neglect. We have gotten together to get him clothes and help out as we can, but it’s never going to be enough. There’s an older student from the family at the high school, but he’s pretty much in the same boat.”

The next week when I visited this campus again, J.C. was in a group I had targeted for intensive work. He was largely silent, his mop of overgrown, uncombed curly hair bobbing wildly when he nodded and shook his head silently for answers. While other kids in the group laughed openly at a lame joke I threw in, J.C. carefully considered what I’d said, a slow flush of red beginning at the top of his forehead and spreading downward, his mouth widening out into a small smile, then growing until those dimples anchored giggles he couldn’t stifle.

The only time he spoke was when I asked them what their favorite food was. He was quick to answer at his turn: mashed potatoes. Shyly at first, and then with growing passion, he described them. “I love the cafeteria’s mashed potatoes. They are thick, hot, and they put a little butter on top that melts. I watch the cafeteria lady when she puts the gravy on them. I think she likes me because she puts extra gravy on mine.” Startled that he had revealed so much, he looked downward, cheeks flaming red.

“Those sound delicious,” I told him. “Maybe we can find out when the cafeteria is serving those mashed potatoes again and I can eat with you. Would that be OK?” He didn’t look up, but nodded his head.

The next day his group filed in. He held a brown paper bag that looked as if something had leaked on the inside, staining the bottom of the bag a dark brown. He beckoned me over to his table and whispered, “I brought some.”

I raised my eyebrows, trying to figure out what it might be. He cracked open the bag and I saw a bowl with aluminum foil over it, a white substance oozing out. “It’s mashed potatoes. I made them this morning. These are the instant kind I made in the microwave. I got up early so I could get them finished before school.” He frowned. “I don’t know how to make gravy.”

My voice caught in my throat. I was speechless as he continued. “The cafeteria didn’t have them on the menu and next week is spring break, so I made you some. Can you eat with me today at my table during lunch? I even brought two spoons.” I took a deep breath, struggling to maintain control. He whispered again, “Don’t worry, I washed the spoons.”

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Next week when I return to that campus, I’ll have more than just writing lessons with me. I’ll have my mom's mashed potato recipe, with measurements spelled out and instructions carefully elaborated.

I’ll have a large bag of Idaho potatoes, and real butter and whole milk and the other ingredients. There’s a new potato masher going, too. I’ll be making a stop at the high school first, to talk with the brother/uncle of my dimpled lunch companion. I’ll take an iTunes gift card as a small bribe for this high school fellow to help his smaller relative with the boiling of the potatoes and to sort through the steps of the recipe. And I’ll have a large container of finished mashed potatoes as well as the gravy I learned to make from my grandma. 

Doing the mashed potato never had better meaning.

46 comments:

  1. Wonderful story. I can't get enough of your writing, the verbal equivalent of mashed potatoes, which I also love.

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    1. jenny_o: And it takes one to know one!

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  3. What a sweet story! Gotta love that kid!

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  4. You had me in tears again with this story Shelly! Such a gorgeous young man, and you are so kind too. Great idea to use his love of mashed potatoes to teach him a useful skill, that's necessary in his life.
    And there was me bopping along with the title.... thinking it was a dancing post!

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    1. jazzygal: I have such high hopes for him. He deserves much good in his life.

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  5. Lovely story - hope that child gets the care he needs.

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    1. Grace: I'm going to be making some inquiries to see if more can be done.

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  6. I love mashed potatoes and you made me cry. I have a suggestion to help this young man fix meals at home: Schwan's. If Schwan's is available in the area, perhaps we could all get together and have some things delivered to him. Schwan's frozen mashed potatoes just have to be microwaved with some butter and a little milk. Mash with a fork. They aren't instant potatoes. They're real mashed potatoes.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Oh, Janie! What a spectacular idea! I will find out. I know the teachers want to help him- perfect idea!

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  7. This story warms my heart to the core! Comfort food shared feels like family.

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    1. Jenny: So true- shared food creates family, too, where none had been there before. I hope this for this sweet little boy~

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  8. Oh what a feeling when you KNOW you're making a lifelong impact. Kudos to you! This should be a Chicken Soup submission.

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    1. Linda: I hope it continues to unfold for him well!

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  9. What a sweet soul he has (she say as she wipes her eyes and blows her nose). I already knew you have one, too. You were meant to connect. :):)

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    1. I'm so thankful he crossed my path. What a pure soul he is~

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  10. That story brings a tear to one's eyes. The best part of life is when we can make a difference--as you did with the lad.

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    1. He's certainly made a difference in mine!

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  11. That is an awesome gesture. I am not surprised as you are awesome yourself. You have made very good memories for the young man.

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    1. Munir: I know I will remember him for the rest of my life.

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  12. What an inspiring story. Leaves happy feelings in the hear.

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    1. He certainly has warmed my heart- an adorable kid!

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  13. Dear Shelly, you are a gift to and from the Universe. Your care and compassion and tenderness and also a large dollop of common sense has enabled you to touch many lives for good. And in return those you have touched have given you a gift also. Their lives and their dreams and their needs have touched your life. The circle of Oneness. Peace.

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    1. Dee, your very kind words touch me more than you can know. And you, my friend, are a wonderful gift to us all. Thank you for that.

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  14. I'm glad he crossed your path, Shelly.

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    1. I'm so glad I've gotten to know him. He's a great kid~

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  15. Shelly, If only we had about a million more teachers like you! So nice to have you back. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind comments. I look forward to catching up with you, too. Blessings to you - Marsha

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    1. It's so good to be connected with you again! I look forward to catching up on your life, as well. Thank you~

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  16. OHHHH, Shelly! This is so beautiful, and what a lovely person you are! I want to come eat mashed potatoes with you!
    --Tearing Up in Ohio

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    1. Now that would be wonderful, to eat mashed potatoes with you. And thank you!

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  17. Ohhhhhhhhhh, to eat real butter in/on my mashed potatoes again. Since my heart attack I must stay away from the fatty foods. But I can dream of sitting with you, supping up those delicious food stuffs and enjoying the company. You are a good person, and your posts always reflect just that...the goodness in your heart and life-style.

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    1. I almost never indulge in butter or mashed potatoes (because of the carbs) but this little guy made it so worthwhile. He is one of those pure souls, and I hope he ends up on a good path. Thank you, friend~

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  18. He opened that paper bag, and I burst into tears.

    Stay with that boy, my friend. Walk next to him as much as life lets you.

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    1. I'm hoping beyond what I know to have that opportunity...he is such a sweetheart!

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    1. Thank you, Rick! Headed over to visit your blog now-

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  20. He will remember this kindness all his life. And so will we.

    You're a credit, Shell. Not just to teaching, but to all of us.

    Pearl

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    1. What kind words, my friend. Thank you, and I think we are one day going to see some big things from that boy.

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  21. Your posts always manage to bring me to tears!! What a sweet gesture on his part and I LOVE your plan!!! Please do write to tell us what happened!!

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    1. I hope to write again of it when I visit that campus next month. That kid is something special!

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  22. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment of this wonderful story. I think you must be the best teacher ever. I'm sure all of "your kids" love you.

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    1. I have been blessed to encounter some of the most amazing kids in my job. I am so glad I entered this field!

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